This book will hurt”: reporting on the UK’s rape epidemic

In The Way We Survive: Notes on Rape Culture, writer and podcaster Catriona Morton investigates what it means to be a survivor of rape in the UK.

This article contains themes of sexual assault and rape which some readers may find upsetting.

In March this year, the Office for National Statistics found that more than one in 20 women had experienced rape, or attempted rape, since the age of 16. Last month, Home Office figures revealed that fewer than one in 60 cases resulted in charges in England and Wales.

Ministers apologised to victims, saying they were deeply ashamed” as they pledged an overhaul of the criminal justice system. But is it enough?

No,” says Catriona Morton, activist and author of a new book, The Way We Survive: Notes on Rape Culture.

It’s atrocious, unforgivable and unsolvable. The recognition is good but I’m also very sceptical whenever any kind of apology like this happens.”

In The Way We Survive, 25-year-old Morton investigates the UK’s rape epidemic and what it means to be a victim and survivor in a post-#MeToo world.

Taking an indepth look at sexism, misogyny, consent and trauma, the host of award-winning podcast After: Surviving Sexual Assault explores the impact of politics and government cuts to survivors in the UK, as well as the long-lasting effects of sexual violence.

This book will often hurt. It will make you angry, it will make you feel,” she writes. My hope is that this hurt, this anger and these feelings will move you to change the way we talk about surviving violence.”

CATRIONA MORTON

Catriona, thank you for writing this book. As a survivor, I feel seen. What drove you to write it?

Thank you so much. I wrote the book for company and resonance. My experiences with childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault in adulthood always made me feel so alone and made me feel like no one understood me and, of course, all the mental trauma that comes with that. Everyone is going to have a different experience, which is why I included my experiences in the book, as well as a lot of research and statistics to back everything up. Having those two things together gives them resonance and an understanding that it’s normal, even though it shouldn’t be normal. I wanted to let other survivors know that they are not weird or crazy.

Was it a cathartic experience for you?

Yes, 100 per cent. My mental health has vastly improved. Obviously, not everyone who would write a book about this would feel better after it. And most people don’t have the opportunity to do so. However, it has helped me immensely. It allowed me to exorcise a lot of the pain and trauma within me. I’ll never be over what happened to me but I now feel more on a level playing field with it. In the past, even last year, I was completely consumed by the trauma and grief of who I used to be and the harm that had been done to me. Now, after writing the book, I understand it more. All my research validated me and how I feel. I still have a lot of shame and self-doubt and that’s a whole process I’m working through, but writing the book reassured me that I was valid in my survival and I wasn’t alone in my feelings.

One of the first things you write in the book is that it will make readers angry. How would you recommend people use their anger to instil change?

I would recommend honing that anger and not quelling it down. One problem I definitely experienced for a long time, and I know other people do, is trying to quieten that anger. As with any social justice movement, there is a lot of other fucking shit happening and it’s enraging. But pretty much anyone, especially those with a marginalised identity, will be enraged with the way people treat you. It’s partly the reason why I wrote this book, a lot of things galvanised me. Chanel Miller’s book Know My Name was an inspiration for my own writing. Whether it’s writing, art or activism, or even getting involved with Sister’s Uncut, you can make a difference.

Were there any parts of the book that were challenging to write?

Yes, the criminal justice chapter was difficult, but re-reading it was even more challenging because I hadn’t talked about it before. I talked about Daisy Coleman, who was in a Netflix documentary called Audrey & Daisy. She was a survivor who was raped at 14 and treated awfully by the media and police. She spoke openly about it and created a survivor space called SafeBAE. But she took her life in August last year and a few months later, her mother did the same. I remember reading that part in the studio when I was recording the audiobook and I broke down. It was really tough because it felt like I was reading an alternate reality. That is the reality for a lot of survivors. Sometimes it gets too much and the only way they can cope is to take their own life. I was very suicidal at the age of 15, on and off until the age of 23. I was drawing parallels between my relationship with my mum and it became real.

You speak a lot about rape culture in the book. How would you define it?

I would say rape culture is the way that rape and sexual violence is normalised in our society. It’s seen as just a fact of life. In the book, I talk about the spectrum of sexual violence, whether that’s people being raped or sexually assaulted, people being catcalled, rape jokes being made and used as jokes on TV. I think what causes it is the entitlement some have to other bodies. Dominant people, and those who have privileges, i.e. masculine people, feel entitled to other people’s bodies. That’s very much based on the misogyny in our society and lack of empathy, which sees other people as objects.

In the year end of March 2020, 58,856 cases of rape were recorded by police forces in England and Wales. These led to just 2,102 prosecutions, compared with 3,043 in the previous 12 months. These figures are highest between the ages of 16 – 24. What can schools and universities do to combat this lack of education around consent?

With that age group in particular, the reports of sexual harassment online and on social media is becoming more prevalent. Again, it’s the same entrenched misogyny from a young age and social media has made it worse in terms of the objectification of women and girls and the entitlement to bodies as shown in porn. It [porn] is readily available to boys and therefore they are seeing their female peers as sexual objects, especially when they get to their teens.

It is getting better, though. What has proven to be really helpful to sexual education and consent education for young people is having non-profit organisations and charities coming in and teaching children. A 2018 report by Bernardo’s found it’s more conducive to their education and isn’t seen as a joke as putting a condom on a banana.

CATRIONA MORTON

You conducted a poll on Instagram which showed that 97 per cent of your followers hadn’t actually been taught consent at school.

Yes, it was very unofficial but it spoke volumes to how big this issue is. The same percentage didn’t know how to report a sexual assault either. I was abused as a child and sexually assaulted twice at the age of 18. These things happen very young, but having that apparatus to know how to talk about it and what to do about it is important. Equally, on the other side, teaching boys and men, who are the main perpetrators of sexual assault, not to abuse, is really important.

Are there ways to approach conversations around rape and sexual assault with men and boys without them feeling defensive?

It’s a good question. This has more to do with transformative and restorative justice. I do think that it should always be centred around what the survivor wants from the situation. Some of the things that happened to me would be classed as sexual assault by penetration, but it feels like rape. That person feels like my rapist, even though technically it’s not. It’s a catch 22 though, because the word rape scares people off. It’s complex, but we need more allies. People who are friends with people who have assaulted people have to approach it in a very emotionally intelligent way, so that they can talk to their friends without their friends shutting down and shutting them off. It’s appeasing them which is fucked up, but it’s finding a way to have that open dialogue.

Do you think conversations around sexual assault have improved, and what would you like people to know?

I think people really want to understand. I think if you haven’t been through it then it’s very hard to understand how people have changed. But I want people to know that it literally changes you and your brain chemistry and your response to things, especially if you have PTSD [related to a series of events or a single event] or complex PTSD [an anxiety disorder related to multiple traumatic events, leading primarily to panic and emotional dysregulation].

I would like non-survivors to know, and other survivors alike who are dealing with it in different ways, that we’re not always eloquent and we’re not always clear-minded. I’ve been in a very good place. I’ve written a whole book, gained two degrees and have done lots of research into this. But we can’t be expected to be this eloquent because we’re really traumatised by our experiences. We shouldn’t expect to be normal” a month after, four months later or even 10 years later. Healing and survival aren’t straightforward. Today you might be fine, years later you might have flashbacks and that trauma comes back to you. People need to be patient and allow survivors understanding and the time to process it themselves in their own way as well.

The Way We Survive: Notes on Rape Culture by Catriona Morton, published by Orion Publishing, is out 8th July.

The advice from the Met Police is to always report it if you have been the victim of rape or sexual assault, and there are many different ways you can do that. If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind and need help or support, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999


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